So it’s been depressing, in the Bush years, to watch various conservatives take on the role that liberals played in my childhood and adolescence, by swaddling themselves in delusions about how the world actually is - whether it’s the weird and persistent Bush-worship, the constant “good news from Iraq” drumbeat, the desperate “we found the WMDs” meme, or basically every word that comes out of Donald Rumsfeld’s mouth. ~Ross Douthat

The process that Ross describes, which is indeed rather depressing for conservatives, seems to me to be a case of a persuasion and political philosophy that actively eschewed ideological thinking falling more and more into ideological patterns, as it became necessary after 1995 and even more so after 2001 to reorient official “conservatism” to fit policy, shaping “doctrine,” so to speak, according to the needs of power.  In this climate, support for policy becomes the definition of your credibility as a conservative, and straying from the party line once too often results in being cast out, rhetorically or politically and professionally.  If the rise of ideological “conservatives”–and the frequent references to ideology and “ideological struggle” in presidential speeches–is indeed depressing, it may be an inevitable by-product of being in power and lacking any form of accountability.  Having ideas that contradict reality, as I have suggested before, does not weaken the appeal of an ideology, but rather confirms that the ideology has simply not been applied properly or that it is being thwarted by hostile forces–the blindness to reality is an inevitable feature of being an ideologue.  It is also not simply that power corrupts, but that it often draws to itself men more liable to be corrupted because many of them have been attracted to serve those in power simply for the perpetuation of their faction in power.

Rod Dreher has some interesting thoughts on just this point:

It’s about losing faith in the ability of my tribe’s leaders to deal with changing conditions non-ideologically. It’s about coming to see that many of us in the conservative camp have become more concerned about holding on to power than in being true to what we profess — and admitting it when our principles or dogmas don’t account for what we’re observing in the real world. And changing course. Instead, we’ve become in many instances ossified in our thinking and quick to demonize critics, both inside and outside the conservative movement, as heretics.

If, as Austin Bramwell has suggested, the movement was always a mechanism for promoting intellectual conformity and shaping conservative philosophy to suit practical political requirements, this should not have been an unexpected development.  The trouble that so many principled conservatives have nowadays is that we tended to believe the hype about the importance of ideas in making the conservative movement what it was.  Ideas were important to a degree, as they are to any political movement, but they were also expendable, because in the end conservatism became almost entirely a political movement and increasingly stopped being an intellectual and cultural endeavour, except at the margins where these efforts had relatively little impact. 

In the official narrative, the culture we were trying to conserve was at once under threat but also basically a given–it needed no special attention, no cultivation, as if it were a block of wood or a stone and not a living thing, but only a regular defense against the aggression of the forces of dissolution and revolution.  Conservatives were so busy building the fortifications and manning the ramparts that they forgot to tend to the crops, and social and cultural dissolution took place under their noses (and in their own backyards), even as they amassed more and more impressive achievements of acquiring power.   

The distortions and corruptions of conservatism in the Bush Era are perhaps less surprising or shocking than many of us, myself included, have made them out to be.  Of course, the betrayals of principle are terrible, inexcusable, appalling, more proof of the administration’s perfidy, but could we have expected anything else from a movement basking in its own success and filled with the power of the federal government?  Power intoxicates, confuses, warps and finally drives men rather mad as they long to hold onto it.  Conservatives have been rather like Frodo toting the Ring to Mount Doom, only to turn around and keep the Ring for themselves–and there is no Gollum to intervene and prevent this from happening. 

A generation of being in the political wilderness has made the fear of returning to the wilderness even stronger–thus the absurd lengths to which pundits will show their devotion and loyalty to Mr. Bush and the desperate rhetoric they will employ to prevent the loss of the House.  Once they lose power, they will have nothing left, having sacrificed every principle that mattered to get it.  If power is a drug, those who benefit from ”their” side being in power are like addicts who eventually crave nothing else but the drug. 

This was, is, a basic conservative insight about the nature of government and the nature of man, which is why the old conservatism stressed virtue and restraint, viewed government as nothing but dangerous force to be used sparingly, and the constitutionalists among us became obsessed with strict limitations on government action and divided powers.  This was, ignorantly, labeled an “anti-government” position, when it was always a position in favour of good government and good order.  It is why conservatism will endure, because it is true and tells us something important about the realities of man, society and government, and why the movement will almost surely die in its own filth once it is cast down from the heights of power.  The movement relied too much on the psychological tension created by the promise, “If only we get Our Guys into power, then things will go fine.”  Well, Our Guys are in power, so to speak, and they have made a bloody mess out of everything.  I doubt the movement can survive as it is now for another decade or two in the wilderness.  If neoconservatism was the ideological movement that was going to make the GOP into a party of government, one that could actually govern the modern social democratic managerial state, the conservative movement it created to that end will not fare well out of power, especially when numerous constituencies of the movement signed on for an entirely different set of goals. 

But this corruption was not something that began only recently, as much responsibility as Mr. Bush and his lackeys have for pushing the movement over the edge.  The Republican and conservative cult of the Presidency began, in some ways, with Nixon, as the executive became the only national institution conservatives and Republicans ever had much chance of controlling, and this gradually led to an indifference towards executive overreach, secrecy and abuses of power and ended up with full-blown justifications for authoritarian interpretations of Presidential power that would have made almost all conservatives of 40 years ago violently ill. 

This acquiescence in presidential power reduced the old instincts of fearing government encroachment more generally; to build the political coalition, greater tolerance was extended to people who wanted to use the Beast for various “conservative” ends rather than kill it; under the influence of increasingly influential neoconservative arguments, streamlining and making the Beast “work” more effectively and efficiently became the rallying cry.  Big Government conservatism was simply the logical extension of this surrender to Leviathan. 

Foreign policy, as the preserve of the executive, became more and more a defining feature of what “conservatism” meant, as those obsessed with foreign policy threats (real or imagined) joined themselves to the faction that exalted the powers of the Presidency and those who were already exalting the Presidency became preoccupied with foreign policy questions.  Conservatism somehow became identified with foreign policy activism during the Cold War, because to be an active internationalist was to be a good anticommunist (there were dissenters against this line of thinking, but they were rare), and this then morphed into a defense of superpowerdom itself.  No longer was it a heavy, but necessary burden borne to fight communism, but an embodiment of national strength and importance, which the increasingly nationalist elements in the movement considered to be obvious goods to be defended and expanded whenever possible.  Supporting American involvement overseas and American “leadership” became an extension of pride in one’s country, and so a reflexive identification with the goals of expanding U.S. power in the world followed, mixed together with the routine denunciations of those who would “blame America” for problems in the world, even if, in fact, America was partly responsible.  In this environment the old Taft skepticism of projecting power, deploying the military abroad and intervening in the affairs of other nations withered away or was consigned to the margins under the toxic, albeit completely misleading and false, label of “isolationism.”  FDR ceased to be the villain who pulled us into an unnecessary war, but the good President, beloved of neocons, whom Newt Gingrich praised in his first speech as Speaker of the House.  The conservatives’ pursuit of power had brought to power men who were not really conservative in any sense recognisable to the early figures of the movement, and once in power many of the remaining real conservatives themselves began to become delirious with its effects.  Foremost among the symptoms of this delirium was the unremitting, general enthusiasm for military action and warfare as the primary solutions to foreign policy problems, which even as recently as the 1990s they had viewed more skeptically (only, of course, because the President was from the wrong party, but at least the adversarial system of divided power seemed to be working).  Support for the Iraq war was one of the clearest symptoms of incipient madness, and those who have not recovered from the fullness of this fever have wound up becoming ever-more frighteningly unhinged in their rhetoric.

As the chosen vessel of the movement, the GOP, long closely tied to corporations, tapped into the small-town, small-business and small-government ethos of its voters to achieve political success, but retained its older loyalties that ultimately ended up defining the leadership’s positions on immigration and trade for a generation.  There is now loud dissent on immigration, at least, but not on much else, since the GOP and the movement alike made corporations into the virtuous actors of the beneficent workings of the market, and during the Cold War, particularly its latter stages, to be weak in your enthusiasm for corporate capitalism was to demonstrate a lack of confidence in the American way of life.  The perversions of conservatism have been around for long time, and many took place over 20 years ago but they have only lately borne their full crop of rotting fruit.